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How to do the Great Wall of China properly

A first encounter with China’s iconic landmark doesn’t disappoint. It’s every bit as epic as one would expect, yet it also reveals a dark past and even a quirky side

How to do the Great Wall of China properly
Great Wall of China. Image: Getty

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I’m swamped in familiarity. Although I’ve never been to the Great Wall of China, it’s so entrenched in my mind’s eye that I can almost feel its rough stone at my fingertips as I set off on the 50-mile drive north from the centre of Beijing. Every photo I’ve seen, every news clip I’ve watched of this ancient ribbon of brick stretching across the green of the Yan Mountains seems to be coalescing into a concentrated mass of imagery that grows in my imagination.

When the Wall does finally appear on the horizon, amid the furrows and farms that surround China’s colossal capital, there’s a rush of recognition, seasoned with awe, as if I’m spying a celebrity I admire across a crowded room. It will remain with me for the rest of the week.

“Is it what you were expecting?” Michael Guan asks. A guide with a remarkable flair for the English language and Chinese history, he’s been leading our conversation, peppering it with facts and figures relating to the landmark — for instance, that feudal lords were piling high such barriers as early as the eighth century BC; that the Great Wall dates, in sections, to this era but didn’t become an unbroken line until 210 BC under Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor, who created it to fence off his territory from the Xiongnu nomads to the north in what’s now Mongolia; that the most photogenic segments of the Wall, as seen in the 21st century, are largely the work of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and therefore old, but not as old as you’d assume. I mull over his question before answering, “Yes and no”. I try to explain that it’s exactly what I was expecting, but that I’m astounded all the same. He gives me a look that seems to say, simply: ‘Good. This is as it should be.’

This is the Mutianyu strip of the fortification. And today, it’s all but deserted. Partly, this is because I’m here on a Tuesday in the maw of
the Chinese winter, which gnaws my hands through my gloves. It’s also because there are other slices of the Wall closer to the city (such as Juyongguan and Badaling). As I look around, I can see, at most, 30 other visitors — around 2,970 fewer than I’d been anticipating — and my amazement increases.

So we go up, slowly — it’s so steep we need to catch a shuttle bus and then a cable-car from the ticket booths. And suddenly, there we are. Under it, in its shadow, then on its walkway, strolling. Michael outlines further details (the granite foundations, two millennia in age; the brickwork on top added by the Ming emperors) while discussing the Wall’s dark side (“It’s the planet’s longest tomb. As many as one million labourers may have died making the Qin structure.”).

We wander for two hours, our progress hindered half by my urge to halt for every photograph-worthy angle (there are many), half by a gradient that I won’t notice until it’s aching in my legs later in the day. And I’ll not emerge from my stupor of admiration until we’re leaving, and I decide to descend via quirky Mutianyu’s tobogganrun — a child-friendly treat that speeds me downhill on a half-mile metal track. It’s a silly way to end an encounter that’s made such an impression, but as I race around the corners, the wheels on my plastic sledge squeaking, I gaze back at the Wall — and realise with a laugh that visiting this A-list historical star doesn’t have to be a straight-laced experience.

Best of the wall

Mutianyu
Best for: The classic image

The joy of the Mutianyu section is that it’s just a two-hour drive from Beijing and isn’t heaving with visitors. It also grants a prime snapshot of the Wall’s magnificence. Sixth century in origin, it owes its strong shoulders to the Ming emperors — and to a significant phase of construction in the 16th century. Recent preservation efforts have seen it become the poster child for the structure. Watchtowers are dotted along it — 22 in under two miles — like periscopes on a fleet of submarines.

Badaling
Best for: selfies

Ming-built in about 1505, Badaling (45 miles north-west of Beijing) is the most recognisable section of the Wall, receiving more tourist footfall than any other — on weekends, you’ll find a forest of selfie-sticks and Instagram smiles. It’s been the backdrop to state visits by the likes of Nixon, Thatcher, Reagan and Gorbachev, and this section’s grandiosity was harnessed for the cycling road race and a TV audience of billions at the 2008 Olympics. Soaring to a lofty 3,330ft, its physical presence matches its celebrated status.

Simatai
Best for: Vertigo views

Forge ninety miles north east of Beijing for this four-mile section of brickwork. It was crafted under the Northern Qi dynasty (550-577), then repointed under Zhu Yuanzhang, the first of the Ming emperors. It clings to cliffs and sheer drops, probing the nerves of those who dare to tiptoe upon it. The ‘Heavenly Ladder’ is a special test of courage, ascending to a watchtower at an angle of approximately 60 degrees, and yet just half a metre wide at its narrowest point. Willpower required.

Jiankou
Best for: Explorers

Sixty-five miles north of Beijing, but just six miles from Mutianyu, Jiankou was hewn at the start of Ming rule (in the late 14th century) and has never been restored. Ramshackle in parts, all but impassable in others, you need a local guide to make the most of an afternoon here. You can hike around 12 miles of the structure, through whispering forests and along ridges. The highlight, perhaps, is the ‘Beijing Knot’, where three individual strands of the Wall intersect at what is Jiankou’s most northwesterly tower.

Jinshanling
Best for: Half-and-half perspective

Just west of Simatai, the Jinshanling section of the Wall is another Ming marvel, complete with 70 watchtowers that have been partially restored. It demonstrates what happened to the Wall once the Ming era ended and the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) had swept to power. These conquerors had less need for bricks-and-mortar defences — and the Wall gradually fell into disrepair. This can be seen in crumbling portions of Jinshanling’s length and blocked off routes.

Juyongguan
Best for: design

Just 38 miles north of Beijing, this is the nearest stretch of Wall to Beijing. Its proximity to the seat of power meant Juyongguan came to be adorned with elements that weren’t strictly military. Chief among these is the ‘Cloud Platform’, a block of masonry coated in delicate carvings that once provided the base to a trio of Buddhist stupas. Unusually, it’s not a legacy of Ming might, but a throwback to the preceding Yuan dynasty of Mongolian warlords (it was built between 1342 and 1345 under China’s last Yuan ruler, Emperor Huizong).

How to do it

Cox & Kings offers a four-night stay at The Peninsula Beijing from £1,595 per person, including flights. A half-day trip to the Wall at Mutianyu is also available, with an evening food tour of Beijing, for £95 per person.

Published in the Trips of a Lifetime guide, distributed with the Jul/Aug 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)